Convicted felon Lynne Stewart passed away on Tuesday. She was a noted criminal defense attorney in New York City who federal officials prosecuted, convicted, and punished for supporting terrorism.
It was a bogus charge, one that perfectly reflects the extent to which the US national-national security state has warped the mindsets, principles, and values of people within the federal government and also within the private sector, especially the mainstream press.
Stewart was representing Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who was convicted in US District Court in New York City of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.
Stewart was convicted of reading a message from her client to the press. The government said that by reading the message, Stewart committed an act of terrorism.
What did the message say?
The government said that the message called on the Sheik’s followers in Egypt to take up arms — i.e., initiate violence — against the Egyptian government.
Did the message that Stewart read to the press actually say that?
Well, let’s take a look at it. Here is what the message said:
I [Omar Abdel-Rahman] am not withdrawing my support of the cease-fire, I am merely questioning it and I am urging you, who are on the ground there to discuss it and to include everyone in your discussions as we always have done.I have read that message dozens of times and, for the life of me, it just doesn’t seem to say what the government says it says, at least not if one uses regular English.
Notice the word “not” in the first sentence. According to an online dictionary, the word “not” means “used as a short substitute for a negative clause.”
So, given that the sentence expressly states, “I am NOT withdrawing support of the cease-fire,” one would ordinarily think that that meant that the Sheik was NOT withdrawing support of the cease-fire.
Not so, according to federal prosecutors and federal judges in the prosecution of Lynne Stewart. They maintained that when the Sheik wrote that he was “NOT withdrawing support of the cease-fire,” that meant that he WAS withdrawing support for the ceasefire and instead calling on his followers to begin shooting Egyptian officials.
According to federal prosecutors and federal judges, Stewart should have known that NOT apparently means YES in terrorist talk.
Let’s now examine the next sentence, which reads: “I am merely questioning it.”
According to the prosecutors and judges, when the Sheik said that he was questioning the cease-fire, that meant that he was no longer questioning the cease-fire and instead had decided that the cease-fire should be ended. Apparently, Stewart was supposed to know that as well.
When the Sheik stated, “I am urging you, who are on the ground there to discuss it and to include everyone in your discussions as we always have done,” he supposedly wasn’t urging his followers to discuss the ceasefire but instead telling them to abandon the cease-fire and begin shooting their guns.
An interesting aspect to this rather unusual way of interpreting the English language was that the government never provided any proof at trial that the Sheik meant something different than what he wrote. It also never offered any proof that Stewart interpreted the message in any other way than the way it would be interpreted using regular, standard English.
Instead, the government simply arrived at its rather unusual interpretation of the Sheik’s message and then decided to go after Stewart for supporting terrorism in Egypt by reading the message to the press.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, that is one amazing offense to convict a criminal defense lawyer of in a country that supposedly prides itself on the right of criminal defendants to have the benefit of counsel. No one would be surprised to see this type of thing in countries like Russia, China, or North Korea, where government officials hate criminal-defense attorneys. But going after criminal-defense attorneys is not the type of thing you would ordinarily expect in a country that has traditionally prided itself on such procedural principles as right to counsel and due process of law.
Keep in mind, however, that Stewart’s conviction took place in 2005, when post-9/11 fear and hype were at their height, not only within the Pentagon, CIA, and NSA but also within the Justice Department and the federal judiciary. Most everyone (excepting libertarians) was scared to death of the terrorists and were convinced that they were about to come and get us all and take over the IRS, HUD, the Supreme Court, and the rest of the federal government and the country. Stewart just happened to be one of the unfortunates who got swept up in the post-9/11 terrorism or Muslim (or “radicalized Muslim” or “Sharia law”) hysteria.
There is something else happening here that is of equal significance, something that goes to the heart of what the national-security state apparatus has done to warp the mindsets of the people serving in the other three branches of the federal government as well as many people in the private sector, especially mainstream journalists.
Recall the message that Stewart read to the press that landed her in a federal penitentiary for 10 years: The sheik was supposedly exhorting his followers in Egypt to end their cease-fire (notwithstanding the fact that the message said that he was NOT exhorting them to end their cease-fire) and to take up arms against the government in Egypt.
Note something important here: In the eyes of US officials, including those in the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, Justice Department, and federal judiciary, people in Egypt who take up arms against the Egyptian government are terrorists.
Not surprisingly, that is also the way the Egyptian government looks on the matter. Indeed, every government considers people who take up arms against it to be terrorists. Don’t forget, after all, that the British colonists in America who took up arms against their government in July 1776 were considered criminals and terrorists by their government.
What’s fascinating about the Egyptian situation is that the Egyptian regime is every bit as tyrannical and brutal as the British government in 1776, if not more so. Indeed, the Egyptian regime is a brutal military dictatorship, one that refuses to stand for elections or permit elections. It wields omnipotent power over the country. It owns and runs commercial establishments as monopolies. Its tax revenues and finances are secret. It kidnaps, incarcerates, tortures, and executes people without trial. It censors the press. And I suppose I should mention that the Egyptian military dictatorship hates criminal-defense attorneys and goes after them if they represent their clients too fervently.
In other words, the Egyptian government meets the classic definition of tyranny. In fact, it bears a remarkable resemblance to other tyrannical military dictatorships, such as those in Chile (under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who US officials helped install into power) and Burma.
So, the question naturally arises: What’s wrong with citizens’ taking up arms against tyrannical regimes? Even if the message that Stewart read did what the government said it did, what would be wrong with calling for an end to a cease-fire against a tyrannical regime? Isn’t that what the Declaration of Independence says that people have a right to do — violently overthrow their tyrannical regime?
What if the message that Stewart read had called on people in North Korea to take up arms against their tyrannical regime? Would US officials have prosecuted her for that? Would US federal judges have upheld a conviction for doing that?
Not a chance.
Then why the difference? The difference is that the Egyptian military dictatorship has long been a partner and ally of the US national-security branch of the federal government, specifically the Pentagon and the CIA. Thus, US officials, including those in the Justice Department and the federal judiciary, have never viewed it as a tyrannical regime, any more than they viewed Pinochet’s regime in Chile as a tyrannical regime. Instead, they view the Egyptian military regime the same way they viewed the Pinochet regime — as a bulwark for freedom. And like their counterparts within the Egyptian government, they view Egyptians who oppose their military dictatorship as “terrorists,” just as Pinochet viewed his opponents.
To this day, the US government floods money and armaments into Egypt to ensure that their partner and ally maintains its iron grip on power by incarcerating, torturing, and executing the “terrorists” who would like to rid their country of its tyrannical regime (which US and Egyptian officials don’t view as tyranny). US and Egyptian officials work together on torture. They have training sessions together. They socialize together. They are rendition-torture partners in the war on terrorism. They are buddies, partners, and allies.
Ironically, and somewhat hypocritically, today the US government exhorts people in Syria to take up arms against the Syrian government. Thus, if a criminal-defense attorney today read a message to the press calling on the Syrian people to end their cease-fire and begin firing on Syrian troops, US officials would hail him as a hero and a patriot.
In the mindset of the US national-security state and, indeed, in the minds of many mainstream journalists, Stewart was a bad person — a supporter of terrorism — who needed to be disbarred, prosecuted, convicted, and punished as a threat to “national security.” Displaying the mindset of blind allegiance and deference to the authority of the national security state, these people are unable to even contemplate the possibility that the real criminals are the Egyptian military tyrants and those who enable and support them.
Rest in peace, Lynne Stewart.
Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.